Thursday, October 19, 2017

Durga Puja 2017 in Brussels

We had the pleasure to attend the Durga Puja festivities in Brussels this year.

We try to attend Durga Puja in different parts of the world every year, and this year it was Brussels. The puja had a very homely feel to it - thanks to the organizers; and we had an absolutely enjoyable time.

For more details of the Durga Puja in Brussels, please refer to the association website (link).



Grote Markt


Focusing on the city itself, Brussels is a typical European capital with its fair share of museums and cathedrals. As a tourist, the place that you need to target is the Grand Place or Grote Markt, which is the main square in Brussels, and all touristic activities including shopping, restaurants / cafes and palaces / cathedrals are centered here.

Impressive architecture at Brussels Grand Place (Grote Markt)

The architecture is indeed impressive, and it looks even more spectacular at night with colorful lights.

Brussels Grand Place (Grote Markt) at night
Brussels Grand Place (Grote Markt) looks so dramatic with lights

Of course, when you are in Brussels, do not forget to sample two of Belgium unique culinary delights - chocolates and waffles. There are numerous shops selling both waffles and chocolates and we honestly did not find much difference among the fancy ones (like the one in the pic below) and the more traditional ones; so feel try to try the first one you see rather than trying to find the most elusive one based on Tripadvisor reviews.

Royal Palace

The 2nd place to visit in Brussels is the Royal Palace. As before, this one is also an architectural marvel. As you are not allowed to go inside, the visit should be pretty quick unless you want to visit the Palace museum.

If you have time, there is a huge park/garden right in front of the Palace which is ideal for catching a breather.

Hotel Metropole


We stayed at the Metropole hotel in Brussels.  It is one of the oldest luxury hotels in Belgium and the hotel is a landmark in itself. As you can see from the pictures below, the hotel interiors are quite grand! The rooms however are not that well maintained, and are in need of some serious renovation. Hence, do not expect 5* luxury based on the pictures on their website.



If you are in Brussels, a day trip to Bruges is definitely worth it.

Bruges is a lovely fortress style city. There are no cars allowed inside the city, and the best way to explore the city is by foot or the beautifully decorated horse carriages. 

There is a labyrinth of canals and a boat ride of 30mins is also a great way to explore the city.

The whole city is quite beautiful, but one of the more famous attractions include the Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaerde (below), which is the only preserved beguinage in the Bruges. The place has a kind of mysterious aura around it and is definitely worth visiting.
Beguinage (Begijnhof) nuns house

Once you get tired from all the exploring (read walking), head towards the City Centre (Grote Markt) - there are plenty of shops and restaurants/cafes around including a few impressive building such as the City Hall.

The colorful city of Bruges

End of the tour, we realized that as a tourist it probably makes more sense to set-up base in Bruges and then visit Brussels for a day :)

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Exploring the Incan civilization in Peru

We visited Peru in July, 2017.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu 


The primary (and of course the most famous) attraction in Peru is Machu Picchu.

The only way to reach the citadel, which you see in pictures everywhere, e.g. the one above; is to take a bus from the city of Machu Picchu. The city of Machu Picchu as such is very small, and there is nothing much to do other than the citadel. So the recommended alternative is to stay in the nearby city of Cusco.


The best and fastest way to reach Cusco from Lima is to take a local flight. There are plenty of local airlines, most of which operate within Peru or Latin America only. Given the high altitude of Cusco, flights often get delayed or canceled due to weather conditions / heavy winds. So (if possible) always try to have some buffer in your travel itinerary to accommodate these delays. Finally, while booking local flights, pay special attentions to the fare conditions as some of the fare categories are reserved for locals only.

The beautiful city of Cusco

Cusco is a lovely city nestled among the mountains. It gives the feel of one of those ancient cities with its cobbled streets and impressive architectural monuments e.g. castles / citadels. It is a very touristic city, so you won't have any problems finding English speaking locals here. It also implies that there are plenty of restaurants / cafes in Cusco - catering to wide variety of cuisines and price range - from the McDonald / KFC to the fine dining options in one of the city's 5 star hotels (JW Marriott El Conveto Cusco or Belmond Palacio Nazarenas). 

Belmond Monasterio Hotel

We stayed at the Monestario hotel in Cusco, which is another Belmond hotel right in front of the Palacio Nazarenas. As the name suggests, it is basically a monastery which has been transformed into a charming chic hotel. The monastery has been impeccably preserved, from the small church, to paintings, to antique furniture. Some of the rooms also have enriched oxygen, so be sure to ask for that if you feel the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. It is a 5 min walk to the Old Town Square - so you avoid all the crowd, but are always within walking distance of the hub. 

Hiram Bingham Train


There are a variety of way to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco. It basically takes 8 hours to drive from Cusco to Machu Picchu city, from where you still need to (queue and) take the state run buses to the Citadel which takes around 30 minutes. The faster way is to take a train from Poroy (the train station closest to Cusco - 20 minutes drive) to Machu Picchu city - takes approximately 3 hours.

The other option is to take a train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu; Ollantaytambo is like a 1.30 hours drive from Cusco, and takes a similar amount of time to reach Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is one of the main sites for Incan ruins, so it makes to combine the train ride with a visit to Ollantaytambo. It is a small city with a few hotels as well, so staying there might also be an option.

There are a range of trains available from Cusco to Machu Picchu - from the cheapest local ones to those where you can at least reserve a seat; and some where you also get lunch / dinner served during the journey. With the reserved ones, while you will be able to avoid the crowds at the railway stations; you will still need to queue for the buses to go (and return) from Machu Picchu city to the Citadel. Here, we are easily talking about an hour long queue just for the bus (2 hours - both ways) on the best of days - so be sure to factor that in while planning your journey as the Citadel is only open from 9am to 5pm.  

The only way to avoid the bus waiting times is to take the most luxurious / expensive option  - the Hiram Bingham train. The train is run by Belmond, the same company which runs luxurious trains around the world, e.g. the Orient Express. Like the Orient Express, the train is beautifully decorated with an open bar and live music.

On board the Hiram Bingham train - on the way to Machu Picchu

This is basically a day train, i.e. it only runs from Cusco to Machu Picchu in the morning (reaching Machu Pichu around 12.30 afternoon) and returns around 6pm from Machu Picchu to Cusco. Lunch (brunch) / dinner is served on the train during the respective journeys. The train also has an open observatory deck which comes in very handy to enjoy the scenic train ride to Machu Picchu.

On the way to Machu Picchu

Upon reaching Machu Picchu, they have a dedicated bus to take you to the Citadel - so no long queues. And, you have finally reached Machu Picchu :)

No amount of internet pics will prepare you for the awe-inspiring feeling that you get on seeing this Wonder of the World for the first time! It is simply amazing how the Incans managed to build a city at this height, using only the primitive technologies available in those days. There is of course a lot of fascinating Incan history associated with the place. So it helps that there is a tour guide included in the train price. For the average tourist, unless you are interested in exploring each and every historical significance of this Wonder  - 2-3 hours are sufficient to explore the place.

Incan ruins at Machu Picchu
The sky touching mountain peaks of Machu Picchu, Peru

Sacred Valley


The other benefit of staying in Cusco is that it also acts as a base point to explore the nearby  Sacred Valley and Incan ruins. 

Sacred Valley, as the name suggests, is a valley nestled among the Andes mountains. Irrespective of its significance for the Incas, it is worth visiting the Sacred Valley just for its natural beauty :)

Sacred Valley, Peru

Pisac Incan Ruins

Significant Incan ruins nearby include Pisac, Moray and Ollantaytambo. Below are a few breathtaking shots of the Pisca and Moray Incan ruins. Unfortunately, there was a nationwide Teachers' strike ongoing on the day of our travel, and hence the roads to Ollantaytambo were blocked - so we unfortunately had to skip Ollantaytambo :(

Pisac Incan ruins
The path to enlightenment ...
Hiking in the Pisac Incan ruins site

Maras Salt Mines

The other site worth mentioning here, which can be included in the same day tour from Cusco - are the Maras Salt Mines.

This is an active mine which is still used by the locals to produce Salt. The stream of salty water (full of minerals) obtained from the mountain rocks through which it passes is the source of the salt. Irrespective of its Salt mining capabilities - whether you are interested in the mining details or not :) - the Salt mines are a sight to behold at that height!

Maras Salt Mines

Lake Titicaca


Sunrise on lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water in the world. The lake is vast - stretching to both Peru and Bolivia.

We stayed at the charming lakeside hotel  - Titilaka hotel. It is the perfect place to relax with amazing views of the sunrise/sunset - as you can see from the pictures :) Location wise, it is like a 30 min drive from the nearest (big) city of Puno.

The charming Titlkaka hotel on the shores of lake Titicaca

The hotel may not look very impressive from the outside, but once inside, it has all the amenities of a luxury boutique hotel. It is kind of self-sufficient in that all meals and touristic activities are included in the room price.